By Eric McDaniel
Horrific events of the past few weeks have thrust the Black church back into the public limelight, as it has once again become a prime target for White Supremacists. As the reports of these incidences have noted, the Black church is central to Black life. It is not just a place for spiritual concerns, but also a place for one to seek physical freedom. Because of its significance, the Black church is praised by Blacks, while vilified by White Supremacists. Especially prominent in the coverage of the incidents is the historical significance of Black churches as a symbol of political freedom. For instance, last week, a Washington Post article “Why racists target black churches” described the history of the Black church in cultivating civic leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr. Without the church as a haven for organization, the civil rights movement would have been very different. Yet the significance of the Black church as a place for civic development and political incorporation continues today. The Black church remains central to Black political advancement, which is why it is a target of animus for those who wish to impede Black political progress.
Almost all scholarship on Black life has noted the importance of the Black church. W E. B. DuBois noted how its structure and achievements demonstrated “the ability of the civilized Negro to govern himself” . Given the high level of segregation in the American religion and the need for Blacks to find independent spaces to develop socially and politically, the church became a prime location for these pursuits. An example of this is Wilberforce University, the oldest private Black university, which was founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1856. Further, the Black abolitionist movement was developed in the church. Prominent Black abolitionists, such as Richard Allen and Henry Highland Garnett were also prominent ministers. Further, many of the early Black Baptist associations were formed with an emphasis on supporting the abolitionist movement .
By being the center of Black spiritual, social and political life, the Black church also became central in shaping Black political thought. Because of its ability to break down class barriers, scholars argue that churches play a strong role in helping the race develop a sense of connectedness [3, 4]. As President Obama stated in his Eulogy for Sen. Pinckney, “That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.” In support of this statement, scholars have found that church attendance is associated with higher levels of racial group identity . Most importantly, it is the messages sent in Black churches that sets them apart from mainstream White churches and provide this sense of racial cohesion. While the messages in mainstream White churches reinforce the status quo, the messages in Black churches challenge it, specifically in regard to racial and economic disparities . Further, this distinctive religious message explains why many religious appeals fail to attract Blacks to the GOP. Several studies have demonstrated that even when Blacks and Whites hold the same religious beliefs, such as the inerrancy of religious texts, this does not transfer to similar political stances . In particular as Whites become more religiously conservative they also become more conservative on racial and social welfare issues. Blacks, on the other hand, become more liberal on these issues as they become more religiously conservative .
Along with shaping how Blacks view the world, the Black church has been central for Black political mobilization. One of the contributors to Barack Obama’s ability to capture the White House in 2008 was the record highs in Black voter turnout. A closer examination of the 2008 elections finds that the strongest predictor of Black turnout in 2008 was church attendance . Scholars of Black participation repeatedly demonstrate the importance of churches in getting Blacks to the polls. As long as Blacks have been able to secure the franchise, their churches have been hubs for elections. One count of Black clergy in politics, during Reconstruction, found that 237 clergy held local, state, and nationally elected positions . Further, many denominations such as the AME Church keep track of the number of registered voters in their congregations. There are several reasons why Black churches are so successful for mobilizing Blacks. Fredrick Harris argues that Black churches promote an “oppositional civic culture”, which points out the problems with the political system, but calls upon them to follow civil norms to transform political and social institutions. Harris also argues that the politics of the church, such as electing denominational leaders serves as a training ground for future participation. In addition to these activities, many churches actively encourage their members to participate . Several works have demonstrated that people who attend churches were they are encouraged to vote are more likely to vote [12-14]. Furthermore, research has shown that exposure to these messages is expected in churches. While many Blacks may be opposed to their church telling them whom to vote for, they expect their clergy to remind them to vote and keep them aware of important issues .
Because of its centrality in Black life, the church can drastically help or hinder Black advancement. The above discussion highlighted his ability to help, but scholars have also pointed out the numerous ways that it hinders Blacks. Many of the early complaints about the Black church was that its authoritarian structure contributed stagnating Black social progress. E. Franklin Frazier, who has praised the Black church for its ability bring the group together, argued that the Black church had “cast a shadow” over Black intellectual life and was responsible for “backwardness” on the part of Blacks . Others have argued that the Black church, along with other Black institutions, has heavily constrained what it means to be Black and in doing so has ignored the political, social and economic needs of large segments of the Black population . Finally, the rise of the Prosperity Gospel, which emphasizes faith and fortune, has many questioning the ability of the church to truly speak for the marginalized as it has in the past [18, 19]. Even with these perceived failures of the Black church, it still remains a vital institution in Black life. Because of this it will remain a place where Blacks seek comfort and empowerment, but will also remain a target to those who are opposed to the advancement of Black interests.
Eric McDaniel is Associate Professor of Political Science at The University of Texas, Austin. His research areas include religion and politics, Black politics, and organizational behavior. His work targets how and why Black religious institutions choose to become involved in political matters. In addition, his work targets the role of religious institutions in shaping Black political behavior. His book, Politics in the Pews: The Political Mobilization of Black Churches (University of Michigan Press), was published in 2008.
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